|Bridget St. John in France.|
Have you been noticing a pattern in England’s neo-folk movement? For myself it’s the important role women played in shaping this music. Somehow, its interesting that while other genres were becoming increasingly segmented off by race and gender, English Neo-Folk was increasingly becoming a genre where women didn’t have to use their sexuality or play second fiddle to lesser talents. In a way, the track of the “Seagull-Sunday” by Bridget St. John stresses the importance of recognizing such trailblazers like her, who if they were born of a different stock, would now have been showered with accolades, but remain largely forgotten in lieu of similar male counterparts.
Bridget was an accomplished late blooming guitar player. Taught at the ripe age of 21 by two of the true greats, John Martyn and Michael Chapman, this Londoner, was blessed with good looks but not the voice or disposition more commonly associated with female superstars of the time. As shy and talented as her male counterpart, Nick Drake, she preferred to hang back and let others do the talking, rather than openly drive for stardom. Her husky, baritone voice which sounds like a hybrid of Nico and Nick’s vocal styles was tied to her uniquely bittersweet lyrics and melodies. So different, was her persona and sound that no one would take a risk in signing her. How could they sell an artist that refused to be sexy and dramatic. That was something that influential BBC radio DJ John Peel would not abide by.
In 1969, he poured his money and heart into starting a record label Dandelion records solely for the reason to sign artists like Bridget who were turned away for not fitting a specific mold other companies wanted female artists to slot in. His goal was to let whomever signed with him record exactly as they wanted and to reap as much of the profits as they could for their work. Bridget was his first signee for that reason.
|Ask Me No Questions album cover.|
Her first record Ask Me No Questions glows with a glimmer of the talent she was about to burst forth with. The gift of time, bestowed by the Dandelion label, allowed her to use this debut as a way to freely tinker and experiment with her sound, with the understanding that she wasn’t under pressure to make a hit. So, this first album, produced by John Peel, starts showing the building blocks she’ll fully cement in the future. Most of the songs in this debut hover around a gentle and simple, easygoing sound. Driven mostly by her arpeggiating acoustic guitar and lingering breathy voice, one can hear in gorgeous songs like “Autumn Lullaby“, “Many Happy Returns“, and “Ask Me No Questions” a singer that could benefit from the fuller arrangements. Something that could lift the songs into the stratosphere and make them just glisten with sound. Something that she would shortly grow into discovering.
|U.S. cover of Songs for the Gentle Man|
For now, her songs were still more tied to the solo sounds of Bert Jansch, and the like. What would make her music burst would be the classical strings Peel sprung for Bridget’s next album Songs For a Gentle Man. While meeting up with friend Kevin Ayers, she happened to meet his keyboard player Ron Geesin. Ron’s unique body of work, and low fee to hire suited Bridget’s mindset for this recording. Aided by the astounding string arrangements that Ron had started to display in Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother” and “Music from the Body“, together they worked in tandem to flesh out a fuller, less samey-sounding set of songs. Folding in influences of Victorian/Edwardian-era sonics (crumhorns, chamber musicians, etc.) with Bridget’s now more grown sound they entered a unique zone. Simply play “Seagull-Sunday” to hear this decidedly strident, bracing sound. Starting out with a fervent string opening, Bridget comes in cloaking the track in some truly sublime sonic wings. Its rondo-folk which you’ll be scant to hear anywhere else.
To this day, other songs like “City-Crazy” and “If You’d Be There” present to us listeners this panoramic baroque song cycles more in common with future Progressive folk than any Sandy Denny or Shirley Collins neo-folk tracks. Unfortunately, for her much of England was in the throes of hard blues rock, rendering such sophisticated music too much of a contrast to build an audience from. However, now if you listen, you can hear how much they missed in ignoring her talents.
bonus track time, her one-woman performance of a song each from Songs for the Gentle Man, Ask Me No Questions, and a future release Thank You For…for French TV: